NORTHERN CHEYENNE – From the Ground Up
By Morgan Sparks with Photos & Multimedia by Kyle Hollinger
The dry, iron-red dust that lines Cheyenne Avenue was the only place her business could grow.
Vikki Cady’s Flower Grinder is an anomaly along Lame Deer’s main drag, the beacon of entrepreneurship for the town – a flower shop in a community where unemployment is several times higher than the national average.
While flowers are only a part of her business now, they were always her dream.
The Flower Grinder has been a mainstay in Lame Deer, the capital of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, for 14 years. A unique hybrid, the shop started by selling flowers and added an espresso machine five years later.
With less than 20 private enterprises across the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Cady’s shop is unique in that it is not run out of the home and it provides goods rather than services. Her success stems from a combination of a persevering entrepreneurial spirit and maintaining healthy distance from a tribal government mired in red tape and bureaucracy.
The reservation, with almost 5,000 residents living on 445,000 acres, has only three actual private stores or shops, all located on Cheyenne Avenue: The Flower Grinder, the IGA grocery store, and Hardware Hanks. The avenue is a five-block stretch of worn pavement that, because of a rare setup between the tribe and Rosebud County, is the most entrepreneur-friendly district on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
Still, as it stands, the street’s south side is dominated more by empty lots and abandoned buildings than thriving businesses.
Since 1998 Cady has offered coffee shop delicacies to an increasingly addicted market. Her most popular sellers are flavored lattes and her famous iced tea-lemonade energy drinks. One would be hard pressed to find a resident of Lame Deer who hasn’t sipped on one of Cady’s drinks.
Cady spent most of her life in and around the reservation, growing up on a ranch while her father, now tribal President Leroy Spang, worked as a miner.
Sixteen years ago, after many years working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Cady quit her government job. With the support of her husband, Troy, and some save money, Cady paid the $1,500 tuition fee to enroll at Just Flower Design School in Billings.
“It was just something that I totally enjoyed,” she said.
Over the next two months, Cady would drive 200 miles daily, six times a week to attend school — her odometer racking up 9,600 miles over the period. Rising early, Cady would be out of the house by 6:45 a.m. to reach Billings by 8 a.m.
“While I was going to school I just couldn’t wait to get done. I just had all these big ideas,” she said.
It was not an easy road after graduating from the program. Cady spent the following two years trying to get her business off the ground. Luckily for the Cady’s, Troy had a successful pre-existing construction business, K-D Company, that helped keep the family afloat.
Of course, an important part of any business is real estate. Cady passed on several building locations. She knew to be successful she needed a prized position on Cheyenne Avenue. She knew she needed township land.
Lame Deer, the heart of Northern Cheyenne country, is a dusty town of 2,000. A single intersection with hanging red lights commands visitors to stop – but there isn’t much to stay for. Aside from a fill up at the Cheyenne Depot or a stop at the IGA for groceries, there is little to spend money on in town. Street vendors selling knick-knacks and food line the streets in the afternoon, but there is little permanent business to be found.
Aspiring entrepreneurs on the Northern Cheyenne face a gauntlet of challenges.
First and foremost is the tribe itself.
Cady said any serious private business ventures seek Cheyenne Avenue real estate because it is the sliver of the reservation that isn’t held in trust by the tribe. It’s considered a township, not reservation land and therefore does not fall under the bureaucracy of the tribal government.
“By being that way, you are your own,” Cady said. “You don’t have to deal with the tribe.”
Cady took advantage of this anomaly. She bought land and opened her shop on the small block of township land that – while located within the reservation borders – belongs to Rosebud County.
A square starting where the eastbound U.S. Highway 212 intercepts Lame Deer at Cheyenne Avenue, it extends south a mile toward the new tribal headquarters. The 1998 chamber of commerce map shows a majority of the town’s businesses located within this square.
Editor of A Cheyenne Voice
Neither the tribe nor the county really knows the history behind the township land. Some suggest that the parcel was grandfathered in as a pre-treaty settlement. Others contend that the county bought back the land in the late 1920s to encourage non-natives to move into Lame Deer.
In any case, those interested in private enterprise know its worth. Cheyenne Avenue is home to all of the private enterprise in Lame Deer. With three businesses, it’s a far cry from Wall Street; however, the ease of operating a business without interference from the tribal government makes the township land a dream for entrepreneurs.
A center for self-determination, market values in the township are determined by buyer and seller – not the tribal government.
“Our tribal system of government doesn’t work very well,” said Clara Caufield, a former tribal council member and owner of A Cheyenne Voice, the reservation’s independent newspaper. “I have really lost confidence in the system.”
N. CHEYENNE BY THE NUMBERS
4,000 Miles: Distance it takes one of Vikki’s roses to travel from Ecuador to Lame Deer.
9,600 Miles: Distance traveled by Vikki over the two months she attended flower school in Billings. She drove 200 miles a day, six days a week, for eight weeks.
20 Less than 20 private businesses are on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, most of which are run out of peoples’ homes.
3 Private Businesses on Cheyenne Avenue, all of which are located on township land.
Caufield, who publishes her paper 20 miles away in Colstrip, chose the location to avoid renting from the tribal government and because of a lack of infrastructure in Lame Deer.
That lack of infrastructure is just another hurdle for reservation entrepreneurs. The tribe is hoping to address this in plans that include constructing a proposed strip mall and renovating existing buildings to create office space.
“What I am pushing for is to create opportunities, but not only opportunities, but infrastructure for Native American small business, which is pretty nonexistent here,” said Allen Fisher, the economic development officer for the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Housing Authority.
Fisher, who is also a former elected official in the tribal government, hopes to foster business growth on the reservation through projects like the proposed strip mall and another reclaimed building, which, when renovated, would lease office space.
However, the strip mall project is six years in the making and still in developmental infancy. The tribe is hoping to purchase a significant portion of township land on which to build the strip mall. The land would also be further developed to encourage more business like The Flower Grinder.
Fisher said the project is currently looking for an architect to draw up designs and he is working to hash out a cost — maybe as high as $1.4 million.
Fisher explained, using vague terms, that the capital for the project would come from three separate sources: a major grant, the tribal government and a large loan.
There is some doubt in the community about the viability of such a project. Even if the project were to get off the ground, the worry remains that the tribe would be a difficult landlord.
Caufield said that even if the tribe had such a space in town, she still wouldn’t move her paper there from Colstrip, though she would like to.
“Governments aren’t in the business of making money, at least this one isn’t, they’re in the business of providing services to people,” Caufield said.
After the year-and-a-half long search for township space on Cheyenne Avenue, Cady found her place, a small lot, just 150 by 50 feet, which she bought from her uncle with a loan from the First Interstate Bank in Hardin.
Soon thereafter, the Cadys acquired a portable building, a former schoolhouse, at a school auction in Busby for $450. Using Troy’s contractor skills, they refurbished the graffiti filled, slumping building into one of Lame Deer’s longest running private businesses.
“The older generation that were really like skeptical about my business, saying ‘oh it will never last, a flower shop in Lame Deer,’” Cady said smiling. “They come in now, ‘Oh you did so well, you proved us wrong.’”
While Cady’s business has always been successful, she said it grew drastically with the addition of the coffee side of the business.
Painted creamy brown with magenta trim, The Flower Grinder is directly accessed via a short sidewalk across one of the few maintained lawns in Lame Deer. There, a spacious porch greets those wanting flowers or coffee.
Stepping inside, visitors can either peruse the flower display to their right, which directly connects to the flower cooler in the adjacent room, or wander left to look at the rhinestone-happy purses, belts and flip flops – “bling bling” as Cady calls it.
The shop is almost always noisy. In the morning and just after noon, the clank of Torani syrup bottles mix with the high-pitched whine of the espresso machine and the whir of the espresso bean grinder.
In the back room, where bar-height countertops allow for flower arrangement, the phone rings what seems like every 15 minutes with orders for flowers.
Cady’s busiest month for flowers is May, which includes Mother’s Day and graduations at the local schools and the tribal college. Near as busy are February, for Valentine’s Day (during which they did 300 deliveries this year as opposed to the usual one or two a day), and April, for proms and Administrative Professionals Day, a result of the reservation’s largest employers being both tribal and federal governments.
Other floral work includes sprays and coffin adornments for funerals, general day-to-day arrangements for events like anniversaries, and single-cut flowers like roses and daisies.
Another major original hit of Cady’s, like her energy drinks, are her glitter-laced flowers. Inspired by the rhinestoned apparel and accessories in the shop, they were a quick hit with the women of the regions’ country western culture.
Troy, who works in the shop during the winter months during the construction off-season, said the coffee business picks up as temperatures drop. Generally the shop will see between 60 and 100 drink customers a day.
In the morning this usually means some combination of coffee, steamed milk and a Torani syrup. In the afternoons, the drink of choice is usually one of Cady’s special energy drinks that, with one shot, contain 4,900 percent of the recommended daily value of the vitamin B-12, used purportedly for its energy giving properties.
For any Cheyenne looking to finance a startup on the reservation, they face the classic Catch-22 seen on tribal lands.
With much of the reservation held in trust by the federal government, individuals and families don’t often have the collateral for a significant loan because they don’t own their land. Even if they did, the median household income on the reservation is slightly more than $23,500, and 60 percent of people on the Northern Cheyenne are unemployed, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Without collateral and no start-up capital, finding the revenue to finance any entrepreneurial endeavor seems mostly out of the question.
“As a Native American trying to start a small business or any type of business here on the reservation … it’s pretty tough,” Fisher said.
Both the tribal government and the local bank do offer loans on the reservation. However, some residents are hesitant to wade into a financial relationship with the tribe, and the bank is mainly a satellite branch of its partner in Colstrip. Cady only uses the bank in town to deposit her till and will drive the 60 miles northwest to Hardin if she needs a loan.
“A big thing as always here on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is finance, finding the capital to create business,” Fisher said.
For entrepreneurial spirits like Caufield, the recipient of a $7,500 Indian Equity Fund grant from the Montana Department of Commerce, grant money is available. Other economic development grants include the Rural Opportunity of Self Sufficiency grant from the tribal housing authority and others offered by local industry giants in Colstrip, like Western Energy.
But the problem remains the same. Even with the capital backing them, where do business entrepreneurs setup shop?
“Well there’s no infrastructure for that and that’s something we’re working hard on today,” Fisher said.
Fisher is hard at work on the strip mall deal. He believes that by providing the infrastructure so lacking in Lame Deer, the tribe can help jumpstart a mired economy.
The unstated elephant in the room with the idea though, is the tremendous loss of private township land to the hands of the tribe. If the project took off, it would take the land invaluable to private enterprise on Northern Cheyenne and transfer it into tribal control.
Some, like Fisher, see this as important step forward as the tribe encourages business. Others though, lament the loss of such a large portion of the township land.
Tuned to 104.9 FM, a Top 40 station out of Sheridan, Wyo., the small black boom box perched on a high shelf in the back room of The Flower Grinder pumps out the voice of pop star Nicki Minaj.
In the next room over, Cady stands adorned in her normal garb, blue jeans with a pattern set in rhinestones on the back pockets, a white t-shirt, and her red “The Flower Grinder” embossed apron. Her fingers, with their pink painted nails, grasp the blue shears, cutting the stalks of a new shipment of roses.
Aside from her and Troy, the shop employs Leola White, 23, a transplant from the Wind River Reservation, and 25-year-old extended family member Ryhal Rowland. The Flower Grinder has a constant flux of employees though, many of them family members and friends who work the heavy business days, usually at no cost beside gas and caffeinated compensation.
Demand remains constant, Cady said.
“There’s some mornings if I am late, due to like the icy roads or whatnot, somebody will call me up and say, ‘Hey you were 10 minutes late,’” she said. “So it’s like crazy, they really watch my business here.”
Cady said the future seems bright for her shop. She is looking to build a new building on the property, one with a larger space where two or three people could work at once making drinks and more room for gifts, especially jewelry.
She hopes to keep The Flower Grinder rooted and growing on Cheyenne Avenue, the only place on the Northern Cheyenne that could foster such a successful, yet unconventional, business.